As the years have ticked by, and what T and I have comes to look and feel more and more like a marriage, it feels as though every day I understand my mother a little better. The more he and I intertwine our lives, the more I visualize our shared future, and the more I realize what it would feel like to have it all ripped away.
It was another beautiful day in paradise, as my dad would say. We were in Aruba on a family vacation. The ladies, my mom, my sister, and I, were lying on the beach and the boys, my dad and my brother, were back at the pool. It was like a movie. Thinking of that day still makes me feel cold. A couple of hotel attendants came running onto the beach calling for someone urgently. It took only a few heart-stopping seconds to realize they were calling for us.
When we reached the pool, the emergency responders had my dad on a backboard. His face was all purple and there was a cocktail straw in his throat where a vacationing doctor had pierced his trachea to help him breathe. My mom and older sister quickly separated into the ambulance, while two Good Samaritan ladies led my brother and me inside. As we rode the elevator and I tried to comfort my little brother, one of them mouthed to me over his head, “He’s gone.”
At fifty-five years old, after twenty-three years of marriage, he was gone.
The years that followed were very dark for our family. But more than any of us, it was darkest for my mom. My sister and I were in college and she remained many states away in our hometown with my brother as he finished high school. Our house was too quiet. Every night for years, from the minute she came home from work until the minute she went to sleep, she couldn’t forget he was gone.
When you lose your love, it is not this prolonged mourning. It is not a quiet sadness. It is a thrashing, biting pain. She became very depressed and often turned to alcohol, and all our relationships quickly began to unwind. We began to gang up on one another. Personal decisions were whipped up to be intentional betrayals of the family and the normal angst that comes with growing pains was misconstrued to indicate deep personality flaws. The vicious texts were probably the worst. With each of us living in different states at this point, and on different schedules, communication was a challenge ripe for our toxic mood to translate into disaster. Some were plain vicious, others were a cry for help, but all I think were an attempt to breach the great divide.
I became deeply upset myself. I had taken my father’s death easily. He was a great dad and I was able to focus on what we had together. But now it felt as though I was losing my whole family with him, and that I could not bear. I blamed her. I blamed her and it wasn’t fair. I thought we needed my dad to lead us and to keep us together, and that also wasn’t fair.
Yes, she was struggling without him, but it was her knack for finances that kept us afloat despite losing over half the family income. They each had their role to play. They had a marriage, in all of its imperfect glory. He would boast about his “lovely bride” at least once a week at the office, no matter what year of marriage they were on. He would also run up the credit card bills and collect junk like he was getting paid to. She kept everyone organized and with one eye on the time and the other on the bottom line, she always came up with the most thoughtful surprises. She would also grumble about divorce when the car windows were left down, the keys were missing, and it was raining (this happened more than once!). And he would always say “I love you Dear!” and she would always respond, “You too Sweetie!” Kiss. Scene.
But I couldn’t see or remember or understand their marriage and what she had lost at the time. I certainly tried to give her a break, but hurt and anger were clearer feels than empathy at the time. Our family wars were consuming me and after too many awkward silences, when my sympathetic friends and partner just no longer knew what to say, I knew I needed help.
I went to the counseling services at my college and began to work things through. Initially I went in to deal with the stress. I am not going to deny that I got drawn into the nastiness and played my part, but I didn’t really have beef with anyone. I would be happy to lose every argument if everyone would shelf the bad attitude.
After some time, lots of tears, a few family counseling sessions, and more angry words than I would wish for in a lifetime, we started to be a family again. Counseling helped me learn to be the biggest and smallest person at the same time. To way over simplify things: I learned to always strive to take the highest road possible and when all else fails to mind my own damn business, two principles which restored respect and healthy boundaries among us all.
My mom deserves most of the credit in my book. She listened, she learned, and, though I think this was the hardest part, she let us go and supported us building our own lives and families at a time when she needed us more than ever.
I get the impression that a lot of parents, a lot of moms, deal with fears or judgments of their parenting. Stay at home moms, working moms, human moms, with hopes, passions, flaws, and heartbreak of their own. My mom is very hard working, probably too hard working. Some day when I can buy that lady her cruise to Alaska I will do it in a heartbeat. She was not the mom who picked us up right on time after sports practices, and she was not the mom who had dinner ready at 6:30 every night. Some might fault her for that. I did during my angst-ridden high school years. But since then I have realized whatever parental support may have been lacking during my childhood, she has made up for in spades in my early adulthood.
She is the mom who has supported me through several periods of unemployment, she is the mom who helped me pack up my car on two days’ notice when opportunity knocked, she is the mom who helped me cope through a crummy first job with an asshole boss, she is the mom who dropped everything to visit me when I got my first apartment, she is the mom who stayed up late on the phone with me to strategize bargaining for buying my first car, and she is the mom who has been there with knowledge, experience, and support for all of the major decisions of my life, to help me make the choice that is best for me and now best for us, T and I.
For the last year since T and I have moved in together, my mom addresses all of her cards to both of us. The most recent one she addressed to “Yuarnen Family.” Yuarnen is the nickname my brother called me when he was a baby and couldn’t quite get the consonants right. It means everything to me that my mom is proud of me and supports my baby family and the life we are building together.
I hope I can find the right place and time to tell my mom that I am proud of her too. I am learning from her outstanding example what it means to be a supportive mom, a loving wife, and a strong woman and I admire her independence and heart and know-how so much. I am my mother’s daughter. I carry her penchant for darkness, but I believe I also carry her strength. Or at least I hope I do, because then I will be strong indeed.